By Roger Annis, July 1, 2012 (see news updates below)
Two days ago, in an elaborate public relations ceremony in the town of Asbestos attended by hundreds of residents, the Quebec government of Premier Jean Charest announced it was providing $58 million in loans to enable the re-opening of the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine. The mine, located near the town, was closed in 2009 thanks to the international campaign against the use of asbestos. Since then, it had been unable to find a bank or any other loan source to enable it to reopen.
The Jeffrey mine is the world’s largest, open-pit asbestos mine. President and owner Bernard Couloumbe says his potential investors are mainly the mine’s potential customers in India and Pakistan.
The only investor publicly identified is Baljit Singh Chadha. His Montreal-based trading company, Balcorp, is Jeffrey Mine’s sales agent in India. Mr. Chadha has raised money for the provincial Liberal Party as well as the federal Liberal Party. The latter has haltingly come to oppose asbestos mining in Canada.
The Jeffrey Mine was formerly owned by the U.S. construction materials firm Johns Mansville Corporation. It went into bankruptcy in 1982 prompted by lawsuits of the victims of asbestos.
The government’s decision has been condemned by the Association of Community Health Specialist Doctors of Quebec (AMSSCQ). Its president, Dr Yv Bonnier Viger, has written to Premier Charest, “Asbestos is a dangerous material little used anymore in Canada and is being removed from public buildings. With the re-opening of the Jeffrey Mine, our government is favoring its use in countries where it is difficult to protect workers and the environment.”
Dr. Bonnier also accuses the government of giving false hope to the people of the region of Asbestos. “It is making believe that we are relaunching the economy of Asbestos, but we are relaunching a moribund industry. Let’s not forget that the Jeffrey Mine went bankrupt.” HIs letter notes that the salries of miners at the Jeffrey MIne will be $16 per hour, about half the average rate in the mining industry in Quebec.
As to the claims by the mine owner and government that strict standards will be applied for the transportation and use of asbestos by its eventual buyers, Dr. Bonnier calls that “an illusion.”
Federal government support for asbestos
In the May 2011 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper twice visited Asbestos and pledged support for reopening the Jeffrey Mine. His government also supports reopening the LAB Chrysotile Mine in Thetford Mines, Quebec, which was closed in 2011. The asbestos mines in Quebec are more than 100 years old.
The Harper government, like Liberal governments before it, have successfully worked with other countries to block the placing of asbestos onto the list of substances regulated by the Rotterdam Convention. That’s the international agreement for the cataloguing, handling and use of hazardous chemicals and materials.
In the 2011 election, the Conservatives came a distant third in the riding that includes Asbestos. The Bloc québécois narrowly beat out the NDP. At the outset of the campaign, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said asbestos mining is safe; several weeks later, he said the matter should be studied by a committee of the National Assembly.
The new leader of the Bloc québécois, Daniel Paillé, supports the asbestos industry. He was economic advisor to Duceppe and a one-time Parti québécois (provincial) cabinet minister. His opponents in the party leadership race last year said the Bloc’s position in support of the industry was a big factor in its vote decline in the province in the 2011 election.
Continuing that position, the party voted last November with the Conservative government to defeat an NDP resolution calling for a ban on the export of asbestos from Canada and adding chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous chemical products under the Rotterdam Convention.
Asbestos is the leading workplace-related killer in Canada. Globally, more than 100,000 people die each year from asbestos-related disease. When inhaled, the mineral fiber causes lung cancers, including mesothelioma, and asbestosis. The latter cause painful and incurable destruction of lung tissue.
World asbestos production peaked at 4.79 million metric tons in 1977. In 2010, it was 1.97 million metric tons. Use of the substance is banned in Europe and the United States; in Canada, it is classified as hazardous but not banned.
Trade union controversy
The record of unions in Quebec on the issue is a scandal. Clément Godbout, then Director of the Steelworkers union for Quebec and Maritime Canada, was a founding member of the Asbestos Institute in 1984 (afterwards renamed the Chrysotile Institute–’chrysotile’ is a chemical name for ‘white asbestos’, purported to be a less dangerous form of the mineral). The Institute has been the main promotion agency for the product and industry.
Godbout was president of the Quebec Federation of Labour from 1993 to 1999, following which he was hired as an ‘expert consultant’ by the Chrysotile Institute and then became its president in 2002. Ironically, the Institute was folded in May 2012 on the eve of an apparent triumph. It lost its federal government funding in 2011, following heavy lobbying by anti-asbestos campaigners.
At its convention in March 2011, the CSN union federation came out in opposition to the industry. Claudette Charbonneau, then president of the 300,000 member organization, told the convention: “Quebec, like many advanced industrial societies, has been shaken by the use of a resource which sows death. If health and safety conditions do not prevent these deadly illnesses in Quebec, it is difficult to pretend that there can be safe use of asbestos in developing countries.”
The president of the 65,000-member CSD union federation, François Vaudreuil, attended the public relations event in Asbestos on June 29 and praised the Charest government’s decision. His union has several tens of thousands of members in the construction industry.
The Canadian Labour Congress supports a total prohibition on Canada’s production and export of asbestos. In a May, 2012 statement, it called for a just transition program for displaced workers in the industry. Construction unions in English speaking Canada and some in Quebec have also demanded a ban on the product.
But the union movement is divided, and not only in Quebec. One of the CLC’s largest affiliates, the United Steelworkers, has fallen silent on the issue, presumably squeezed by conflicting views among its affiliates. One of its historically important locals, Local 480 in Trail, British Columbia, produced a hard-hitting, anti-asbestos film in 2008. ‘Asbestos: The Silent Killer‘ is 26 minutes long and is part of a broad effort by unions in BC to ban the product.
The campaign in BC was further prompted by a decision in 2002 of a newly-elected, provincial Liberal government to end payment of disability pensions for workplace disease or injury once recipients reach the age of 65. Instead, disability pensioners now receive a one-time lump sum payment at 65, amounting to a sharp cut in overall benefits.
The most well-known anti-asbestos campaigner in Canada is Kathleen Ruff, author of ‘Exporting Harm: How Canada Exports Asbestos to the Developing World’. She is also Coordinator of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance.
Another active anti-asbestos campaigner is the Canadian Society for Asbestos victims. Another film that has been produced is the 2011 ‘Breathtaking‘, by Toronto filmmaker Kathleen Mullen. “It takes on the asbestos industry through a moving and personal investigation into her father’s death from an asbestos-related disease and the current present-day use of asbestos in Canada and internationally.”
The official opposition party in the National Assembly, the Parti québécois, says it wants a public inquiry into the use of asbestos before a reopening of the mines is decided.
Given the dubious economic prospects for a relaunched asbestos industry (The LAB mine in Thetford Mines has missed its deadline for a purported reopening), the $58 million ‘loan’ to the Jeffrey Mine looks an awful lot like a direct subsidy. Meanwhile, the Quebec government is currently in the midst of waging a social war against the young people of the province, demanding that they do more to finance post-secondary education.
1. Background articles on the asbestos industry in Quebec: New York Times, February 2010 and Globe and Mail, November 2011
2. Doctors condemn move, but miners and residents applaud it, The Gazette (Montreal daily), June 30, 2012
3. The Rise and Fall of the Chrysotile Institute, International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, May 1, 2012
4. Canada accused of hypocrisy over asbestos exports, The Lancet, Dec 9, 2010
5. Working class solidarity or colonial complicity? Quebec unions and asbestos, David Mandel, The Bullet, Dec 29, 2010
Appendix (3 items):
In Asbestos, sound investment or dangerous exploitation?
Charest okays loan to Canada’s last asbestos mine in economically depressed town, outraging health and environmental advocates
By Les Perreaux, Globe and Mail, July 3, 2012
The announcement was described as a national embarrassment, the crass political manoeuvre of a desperate Quebec government trying to hold on to a Liberal seat at the cost of public health. Critics lined up with speed and in number on the long weekend to blast Premier Jean Charest for green-lighting a $58-million loan to Canada’s last asbestos mine late on the Friday of the unofficial start of summer vacation season.
The loan stunned environmentalists, the medical community and cancer-fighting groups while promoters of the controversial relaunch of the Jeffrey Mine were more difficult to find. Even the province’s own public-health doctors are outraged.
Mr. Charest “has good reason to be ashamed,” said Yv Bonnier Viger, head of Quebec’s association of public-health specialists. “He is relaunching the exploitation of an extremely dangerous material that will cause the suffering and death of thousands of people in poor countries, at only marginal benefit to a desperate community.”
The province, led by retiring minister and local Liberal member of the legislature, Yvon Vallières, announced the loan and reopening before hundreds of thrilled residents of the economically depressed town of Asbestos.
Bernard Coulombe, the mine’s president and tireless promoter, had worked for years to find private investors willing to put in the balance of the $83-million start-up cost. “It was not easy to convince partners to work with us,” he said, adding that the mine will run 20 years on the investment.
Kathleen Ruff, an activist who has fought against government funding for the mine for years, said there was good reason for the difficulty: “The marketplace had spoken, this mine can only survive with artificial government life support.”
Mr. Charest has recently been on a wider push for more mining, as exemplified by his Plan Nord to ramp up resource extraction, but immediate political calculations are also at play. The Premier is expected to call an election this year – a vote he will be hard-pressed to win. While most Quebeckers oppose asbestos mining, the plan will have plenty of backers around the mine location in the Eastern Townships, where seats can swing.
Mr. Vallières dismissed talk of political gain, saying the decision was “well thought out and responsible.” Mr. Vallières, whose father worked for 40 years in the chrysotile asbestos mine, said project officials will be required to ensure proper handling by purchasers. “I’m confident Quebec will become a world leader in the handling of chrysotile,” he said.
The Jeffrey project will have miners dig underground in what was an open-pit mine to harvest asbestos for use in construction, mainly in developing countries. Asbestos has fallen out of use or been banned outright in much of the developed world because of well-documented risks of deadly lung disease from the dust.
The World Health Organization says 100,000 people die each year from asbestos-related disease. Quebec has among the world’s highest rates of a cancer known as mesothelioma, a legacy of mining and heavy use in all kinds of products through most of the past century.
Improved techniques have rendered extraction relatively safe for asbestos miners who will make about $16 per hour. The bigger ongoing health risk is in developing countries such as India, where handling is often haphazard.
“It’s really beyond me, I really can’t understand how the government could make such a decision,” said Paul Lapierre of the Canadian Cancer Society, which described the move as an “embarrassment.” Both former Liberal and current Conservative federal governments have tried to protect it from international bans, while all of Quebec’s political parties have long promoted asbestos mining.
Quebec lagged as world opinion turned against asbestos, partly because of economic interest, partly because of history. Thousands of miners walked out in 1949, supported by intellectuals like Pierre Trudeau, to win safer working conditions (including improved filtering of asbestos dust) and better wages. The strike, by far Quebec’s biggest and longest at the time, was seen as a driver of the Quiet Revolution.
Six-thousand miners worked in the industry in the late 1970s. The latest relaunch will eventually employ about 425 people.
Jeffrey Mine backers face headwinds
Quebec mine owners remortgage their homes, Thai backer may face countrywide ban
By Michelle Lalonde, Environment Reporter, The Gazette, July 31, 2012
If the Charest government was hoping to avoid criticism by quietly announcing the relaunch of Quebec’s controversial asbestos industry on the Friday before a holiday weekend, it might have miscalculated. The government’s $58 million loan to help reopen and expand the Jeffrey Mine has ignited deep controversy, and possibly put financial pressure on the two Canadian owners.
In the month following the June 29 announcement that Quebec would loan $58 million to help reopen and expand the Jeffrey Mine in the town of Asbestos, newspapers across Quebec and Canada have run editorials and columns condemning the decision. The wisdom of staking public money on this project has come under question, and last week an international scientific organization of epidemiologists joined the call for a global ban on asbestos.
In April 2011, the Liberal government had promised to provide a guarantee on a $58-million loan to the project’s proponents – Westmount businessman Baljit Chadha and Jeffrey Mine president Bernard Coulombe – if and when they could come up with $25 million in private investments to enable the reopening of the mine.
The government is now providing a direct loan rather than a guarantee, and critics charge that’s because no financial institution would loan the money, even with a government guarantee. Asked why the government decided to provide a direct loan, an aide to Economic Development Minister Sam Hamad said only that it was done to speed up the relaunch.
“The Quebec government has done this in order to accelerate the process of the relaunching the Jeffrey Mine,” Economic Development Ministry spokesperson JeanPierre D’auteuil wrote in an email, days after the question was posed in an interview.
Finding investors proved to be no easy task. Although, Chadha and Coulombe had earlier indicated they had an international consortium of interested investors behind them, in the end they seem to have found only one: Uhlan Marketing Co. Ltd. of Thailand.
That company has put down $14 million, and the remaining $11 million in private investment has been scraped together by Chadha and Coulombe themselves, Guy Versailles, a spokesperson for the Jeffrey Mine, confirmed in an interview with The Gazette.
Chadha and Coulombe are now co-owners of a new company called Mineral Fibre Inc. which owns the Jeffrey Mine. “Mr. Coulombe and Mr. Chadha have already put their money into an account at the mine, and Uhlan of Thailand has put in $14 million. The $25 million is there. That money is there. It is in the bank account of the mine,” Versailles said.
Asked about reports that Chadha and Coulombe have had to remortgage their assets to get the money together, Versailles warned against reading this as a sign of desperation. “You have to be careful when you start talking about re-mortgaging and such. what we know is that businessmen like Mr. Chadha, who have all kinds of different investments, they mortgage their homes and leverage their assets left and right. It’s normal.”
The provincial land registry indicates that Chadha took out a new $1.7-million mortgage on his Westmount home on April 2 of this year.
Proponents of Quebec’s exportation of chrysotile asbestos to developing countries say the substance is a lowcost construction material that can be used safely to fulfill a growing demand in the developing world.
The Thailand investor, Uhlan Marketing, is part of a chain of companies that make roofing tiles out of asbestos-reinforced cement, and the company is predicting brisk sales next year, according to news reports from Thailand.
The trouble is, the government of Thailand seems to be seriously considering a ban on asbestos imports, following in the footsteps of more than 50 countries worldwide. A resolution calling for a ban from Thailand’s National Health Assembly was submitted to Thailand’s National Health Commission, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, in February of 2011. Some reports indicate the government will be voting on a ban as early as September.
But Versailles is optimistic. “The ban-asbestos movement exists in every country where there is a market, and there is talk in Thailand about banning it, but so far it hasn’t happened. Even if they succeed and asbestos is banned in Thailand, then we will sell it elsewhere.”
He stressed that the reopening of the mine, which he said will begin production by summer of 2013, will benefit the region and the province in a number of ways. The loan bears a 10-per-cent interest rate. Over its expected 20-year lifetime, the mine will pay $124 million in mining duties, $176 million in corporate income taxes, and $25 million in municipal taxes. The mine will also support 425 direct jobs and 1,000 indirect jobs.
The company will also pay the province $1.5 million every year; the first $7.5 million to be used to create a fund dedicated to economic diversification of the mining region. The mine is expected to produce 250,000 tons of chrysotile asbestos a year for a total of 5 million tons over the next 20 years.
While creating jobs in one region may help the Liberal government’s chances in the expected September election – at least in that region – the asbestos file continues to bruise Quebec’s international reputation.
A damning position statement released last week by the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology called for a global ban on mining, use, and export of all forms of asbestos.
The committee, which includes epidemiologists from around the world, completed a thorough review of epidemiologic evidence and concluded that all types of asbestos cause diseases and premature death and that continued use of asbestos in developing countries will lead to “a public health disaster of asbestos-related illness and premature death for decades to come in those countries.”
373 dead from asbestos during 2007-10 alone
Aug 24, 2012–Two days ago on CBC Radio, Premier Jean Charest vigorously defended his government’s decision several months ago to finance the reopening of asbestos mining and export in Quebec. Today, Le Devoir puts some meaning to that decision–it got its hands on documents of the Workplace Health and Safety Commission showing that 373(!) former workers in the industry in the province died from exposure in the three years alone between 2007-10.